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It was time for a change of species. The next day Hetzer and I determined to try for northern pike. I had cut my piscatorial teeth on northerns as a boy in Wisconsin, where the lakes teemed with these lean, green, shovel-faced denizens of the shallows. Jacks, as northerns are called by contemptuous anglers seeking nobler game, like to hide in weed beds and dart out to ambush anything swimming past.
In my youth, they were considered fit prey only for young boys and women, but I retained an unspoken affection for Esox lucius—no freshwater fish hits harder or with more avidity, and on a fly rod they truly show their stuff, ripping off line in fast, zigzagging runs that can quickly cut your line finger to the bone.
Again we headed up the Muskrat River, dodging boulders through the Whitewater rapids. We stopped briefly where we had fished the day before, to warm up on a half dozen three-pound brookies, and then entered pike water—shallow, weedy, slow-moving and studded with rocks. Our guide this time was Todd Snelgrove, a wiry blond boatman from Goose Bay who speaks just like Popeye—a legacy of his Newfoundland heritage. While Snelgrove regaled us with hunting and fishing anecdotes, we began blind casting. Hetzer was throwing a green, black and yellow Dahlberg Diver, a deer-hair fly that behaves almost like a balsa plug. I tied on a weedless deer-hair bass bug on a [1/0] hook. Snelgrove was reaching the climax of a tale wherein he and a friend had snowmobiled 300 miles to kill caribou for their families' "winter grub"—"We catches the herd on a frozen pond, 'ey, and gets 'em circlin', and I ups with me .243...."—when Hetzer yelled, "Fish on!"
From the swirl it looked like a big one, at the edge of a weed bed in barely a foot of water. But then we saw a flash of red. Another brookie.
We caught brook trout after brook trout after brook trout from that pikey water, until our arms ached and our spirits sagged. The sun beat down. Not a ripple on the water except those caused by struggling brookies. "Newfie steak, 'ey?" Snelgrove was saying. "Now there's a plate o' grub what's fit for a king! Fried baloney a-swimmin' in cream sauce. With plenny o' fried spuds on the side, 'ey? Why, I...." We were drifting past a solitary boulder that rose from a wreath of weeds like a monk's tonsured pate. Wearily I bounced my bass bug off the top of it—"Take that, padre!"—and began stripping it erratically back to the boat. There came the inevitable swirl.
This time, though, it wasn't dull red, but rather the refreshing, exciting, soul-sparking thrill of Something Completely Different—the dark green, lozenge silhouette of a yard-long northern! Adrenaline surged, and suddenly I was wide awake. The pike took off on a scorching run, the searing bite of the line welcome under my forefinger as I reared back on the rod and held it high overhead. Three times that pike ran, stripping off line with ease despite the heavy drag setting on the reel. When I finally brought the fish alongside to release it, it glowered up at me with a gatorlike grimace. I patted it on the head as if it were a well-loved pet. If it had had ears, I would have scratched them.
Up in the bow of the boat, Snelgrove was beside himself. "Ridiculous," he said. "Grinnin' from ear to ear like you'd just caught a 40-pound salmon. We're in Brook Trout Heaven, and you're all excited 'bout a slippery, slimy, foulsmellin' gator." Hetzer stood up and grabbed his fly rod. "Hey, Todd, head back over to that bald-headed rock. There may be another one lurking in there."
He unhooked his fly from the keeper ring and gazed at it skeptically. "You got another one of those bass bugs you could spare?"
And then all three of us were laughing. Labrador's Brook Trout Heaven can do that to you.